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The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (1944)

by Karl Polanyi

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,3121111,166 (4.2)1 / 28
In this classic work of economic history and social theory, Karl Polanyi analyzes the economic and social changes brought about by the "great transformation" of the Industrial Revolution. His analysis explains not only the deficiencies of the self-regulating market, but the potentially dire social consequences of untempered market capitalism. New introductory material reveals the renewed importance of Polanyi's seminal analysis in an era of globalization and free trade.… (more)
  1. 00
    War and Social Change in Modern Europe: The Great Transformation Revisited by Sandra Halperin (x_hoxha)
    x_hoxha: Wide-ranging history that presents a critique of Polanyi's account.
  2. 00
    Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia by Steven Stoll (M_Clark)
    M_Clark: Ramp Hollow expands upon many of the points made by Polanyi in its in-depth look at the economic development of Appalachia.
  3. 00
    The Revolution of Civil Society. Challenging Neo-Liberal Orthodoxy: The Development of the Progressive State by Michael Lloyd (M_Clark)
    M_Clark: Michael Lloyd's book, although difficult to read, provides a more comprehensive critique of neo-liberal thinking.
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» See also 28 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
It's difficult to review this book. I can see why it has been considered a classic and why it is still read today. The author is very knowledgeable in the economic history of the 19th century and his breadth of vision is impressive enough to captivate even critical readers. On three accounts, he criticizes the idea of a society organized solely on free market principles: (1) labour, (2) land and (3) money cannot be bought or sold as commodities. Attempts to supply them through free markets were made in the 19th century and early 20th, and this book is an attempt to illustrate and emphasize how destructive those attempts were.

However, although the book is fine as far as illustration and emphasis are concerned, I think it falls short on explanation. The writing is superb but the logic of the arguments often seems flimsy. The author discusses a number of events from the history of British industrialization in the 19th century and compares them occasionally to anthropological studies of primitive societies. But far too often the discussion yields no clear conclusion. It seems like the author then skips ahead without having established any cause-consequence relationship, and states his preferred conclusion as a matter of fact: the consequences of this or that policy were disastrous. Considering the breadth of the author's arguments and the consequences he attributes to them, the explanations he provides are far too brief.

I don't mean to say that I was not convinced. As far as I could tell, the author's three main points are valid criticisms of free-market liberalism. But this book needed to be at least twice as long if the author wanted to present truly convincing arguments for his main points. In comparison to the writers whom the author criticizes, such as Hayek and von Mises, his biggest failure is that he does not present any clear theoretical framework for the transformation he describes. I'm not sure if that framework should have been an economic theory or a theory in social or political philosophy, but something theoretical needed to be said to truly make this book a work for the ages. It still stands as a fine intellectual achievement in economic history and a pleasure to read 75 years after it was written, but it's also a product of its age. I could not see what practical implications it might have for societies in the 21st century.
1 vote thcson | Jan 7, 2020 |
Everyone should take the time to read this book, along with Keynes [b:The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money|303615|The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money|John Maynard Keynes|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1415594896s/303615.jpg|1711698] (esp. chapter 26 if I recall well...)

This was a pivotal book in my PhD (accepted as an MPhil due to methodology and scope problems, partially due to my inability to separate out all of the issues discussed by Polanyi across multiple books) work on Economic Social policy.

ShiraDest,
5 November, 12015 HE (the Holocene Calendar) ( )
  FourFreedoms | May 17, 2019 |
Everyone should take the time to read this book, along with Keynes [b:The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money|303615|The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money|John Maynard Keynes|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1415594896s/303615.jpg|1711698] (esp. chapter 26 if I recall well...)

This was a pivotal book in my PhD (accepted as an MPhil due to methodology and scope problems, partially due to my inability to separate out all of the issues discussed by Polanyi across multiple books) work on Economic Social policy.

ShiraDest,
5 November, 12015 HE (the Holocene Calendar) ( )
  ShiraDest | Mar 6, 2019 |
Contains Goldstein on Hipparchus and Eudoxus
  ajapt | Dec 30, 2018 |
Written just after WW II, Polanyi's book provides a strong criticism of the market liberalism of people like Hayek. He explains that market liberalism's belief in pure self-regulating markets is a myth that has never existed or even been tested in practice. Market liberals explain away all of the failures their theories encounter in the real world as being the fault of not following their ideas with enough purity.

Polanyi begins by attacking the principles of many of the classical economists by examining the anthropological record showing that their assertions about how primitive societies worked has been shown to be pure fantasy. He then criticizes the market liberal approach to labor by looking at English economic history during the 18th and 19th centuries. This will make his book difficult for those totally unfamiliar with English history; however, those with patience will be rewarded with observations from these times that fit with today's political discussions.

For example, the Speenhamland Laws of 1795, which topped up worker's wages so they would not starve, resulted in employer's actually lowering wages since they knew that the public sector would keep them from starving. This can, of course, by compared to the wages policies of Walmart where many employees need to collect Food Stamps in order to make ends meet. After many years, the English abolished the Speenhamland approach and offered no support to able-bodied workers. Discussions of this at the time, saw major benefits in people suffering from hunger since it would force them to work for lower wages. it would also force them to become cannon fodder in English wars. This can be compared to recent Republican ideas for reforming welfare.

The book also has an outstanding introductions by Joesph Stiglitz and Fred Block who point out the relevance of the book to today. ( )
1 vote M_Clark | Dec 21, 2017 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Karl Polanyiprimary authorall editionscalculated
Jelinek, HeinrichÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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In this classic work of economic history and social theory, Karl Polanyi analyzes the economic and social changes brought about by the "great transformation" of the Industrial Revolution. His analysis explains not only the deficiencies of the self-regulating market, but the potentially dire social consequences of untempered market capitalism. New introductory material reveals the renewed importance of Polanyi's seminal analysis in an era of globalization and free trade.

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